NT Wrong interview with Frances Flannery
Thanks to NTW for this:
Interview between NTWrong and Frances Flannery, founder of Golem: Journal of Religion and Monsters http://www.golemjournal.org/ June 2009.
Q. First up - I see the Journal's last issue is from Spring 2007. Is it still a going concern?
Frances Flannery: We just came out with Issue Three (Spring 2009). As you can see, the quality is extremely high. The issue is very interesting and focused on the issue of monsters and “Otherness,” especially as it relates to disability, immigrants, and post 9-11 trauma. We did take longer between Issues Two and Three than we were expecting, for several reasons, including handing over the Senior Editorship to Rubina Ramji of Cape Breton University. She has proven to be an exceptional leader and I think the wait was well worth it!
Q. Why monsters? What is your personal and/or professional interest in monsters?
FF: My research specialty is in ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, which is of course rife with monsters. I began thinking about them as culturally specific symbols, especially with respect to chaos and the transgression of categories. When I examined anthropological sources across an extremely broad band of cultures, whether modern Asia, Polynesia, or Europe, or ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, I found monsters in every single culture I ran across! How very interesting! I realized that if monsters do exist in every culture, they must serve a VITALLY important social function. To figure out that function, I needed to understand what Dracula, Frankenstein, Cyclops, Godzilla, The Dragon from Revelation, Big Foot and zombies have in common.
As it turns out, many scholars have considered the definition of monsters, and there is even a field of “monster study,” called teratology. I finally settled on a definition of monsters as those socially constructed entities that either blur existing categories or that must exist between categories, where nothing else fits. For instance, Frankenstein is both living and dead, and Big Foot is only scary if he is both Human-like and Ape-like. A giant lowland gorilla species would frighten no one! In turn, this definition implies that the function of monsters is exactly, then, 1) to allow a culture to express what category formations are important to it, 2) what boundaries are currently being challenged, and 3) thereby to express societal fears about these boundary crossings, usually as a catharsis. Godzilla, as an ancient creature awakened by atomic energy, expressed the fears of Post WWII Japan and America in the nuclear age. Monsters are thus vital to the mental health of a culture, and keys to what a culture values. With Clifford Geertz, I consider religion to be a cultural system. Hence, monsters must be crucially important to understanding religion.
Q. Why did you choose such a topic for a new journal?
FF: I started GOLEM after teaching an upper-level course at Hendrix College in Conway, AR on “Religion and Monsters,” a course I will also teach at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. The course employed a variety of methodologies and definitions of monsters, drawn from anthropology of religion, religious studies, ritual studies, and aesthetics. I knew immediately that the course would have “buzz” around it, that students would be intrigued with the topic right off the bat. Of course it over-enrolled, because monsters are cool! But I never realized that the course would generate the most sophisticated thinking from my students that I had encountered. In addition, it stimulated my own thinking in ways that made me look at my own research topics - apocalypticism, mysticism and terrorism - in a completely new light. I wanted to create a forum for others, from a variety of humanities and art related disciplines, to think about monsters and their significance in various contexts. The journal is especially committed to interdisciplinary methodologies that result in a broad range of topics for investigation. So far GOLEM has generated articles, to name a few, on monsters and otherness, disability, the construction of normalcy, horror films, posthumanism, ecological devastation, class, ethnicity, the Ancient Near East, and Christian Evangelicalism and intelligent design. And there are so many more interesting avenues to explore!
Q. If somebody is interested in writing for the journal, are there any future topics planned, and/or does the journal accept general-purpose articles at any time?
FF: We do accept general-purpose, scholarly articles at any point, and articles are judged in a peer-reviewed editorial process for acceptance. An article must have a clear methodology in order to receive a positive review, but the topics of research may be widely ranging. At present, I know that the journal editors are especially keen on the topics of monsters as they related to terrorism and symbols of ethnic groups, because that issue is so germane to our contemporary global situation.
Also, I would add that we are eager to get the word out about “GREMLIN,” a place in the GOLEM journal for undergraduate publishing on the topic of religion and monsters.
Q. Thanks in advance, and please feel free to add any comments about GOLEM that you wish to make known.
FF: If you have room, I’d like to mention a few of my favorite books on religion and monsters as a way of stimulating some of your readers to write submissions for GOLEM. You could reprint the bibliographic information alone, or include my short descriptions. Thank you so much! }
I think your readers would enjoy the following works to stimulate their own investigations of religion and monsters:
Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. New York : Routledge, 2002. ISBN: 0415925886. Beal’s book is an insightful, wide-ranging account of monsters in a variety of religious contexts and media, including: the ancient Near East, Bible, rabbinic tradition, orientalism, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Stoker’s Dracula, Rowling’s Harry Potter, Murnau’s Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
Byron, Gay L. Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature. New York : Routledge, 2002. ISBN: 0415243696. Byron astutely reappraises the symbolic use of “Egypt/ Egyptians,” “Ethiopia/Ethiopians,” and “Blacks/blackness” in early Christian writings and associations made between certain Africans and demons, sexual vices, sin and heresy (5).
Cohen, David, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1996. ISBN: 0816628556. All fourteen articles have something to offer, and many touch directly on issues of religion (e.g. Michael Uebel, “Unthinking the Monster: Twelfth-Century Responses to Saracen Alterity,” 264-291). The case studies include a variety of historical and literary approaches from antiquity to the present day, concentrating especially on the relationship of monsters, body and disabilities (e.g. Allison Pingree, “ America ’s ‘United Siamese Brothers’: Chang and Eng and Nineteenth-Century Ideologies of Democracy and Domesticity,” 92-114; Stephen Pender, “No Monsters at the Resurrection: Inside Some Conjoined Twins,” 143-167).
Gilmore, David D. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. ISBN: 0812237021. Gilmore succeeds in sketching a comparative and Freudian study of monsters that treats not only “Western” ones, but also examples from indigenous America, Canada, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa.
Girard, Réné. The Scapegoat. Yvonne Freccero, trans. Baltimore , MD : Johns Hopkins University Press, reprinted in 1989. ISBN: 0801839173. Girard uses the Christ myth as the paradigmatic example of the scapegoat, a symbolic target for collective fear and aggression. He claims that most societies are actually based on the ritual sacrifice of some victimized, marginalized other and offers numerous examples from antiquity to modernity to support his bold thesis. Ultimately, Girard aims to expose the fratricidal tendencies of societies by highlighting the concept of stranger and scapegoat, which carry religio-philosophical implications. In this sense, his work has influenced several scholars who research societal and ritual monsters.
Graham, Elaine L. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick , N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2002. ISBN: 0813531598. As the title indicates, Graham is interested in exploring ongoing shifts in human identity in light of recent technology, bio-medicine and cybernetics. To accomplish this, she explores two surprisingly complementary narrative sites, science and popular culture.
Harpham, Geoffrey G. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton , N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1982. ISBN: 0691102171. This earlier work has been influential in monster research across disciplines since Harpham uses an eclectic approach drawn from art history, literature, religious studies and psychology to focus on “the grotesque.”
Kearney, Richard. Strangers, Gods and Monsters. New York : Routledge, 2003. ISBN: 0415272580. This philosophical approach to monsters places them in a wider context of many beings of alterity and borderline experience, including divinities, making for an interesting reflection on religion and monsters. Kearney comments on relevant reflections by a host of philosophers and theologians, including: Kant, Hegel, Marx, Levinas, Derrida, Caputo, Kristeva, Lyotard and particularly Heidegger and Girard. Kearney ’s case studies derive mostly from “Western tradition”: Jewish and Christian history, UFOlogy, Shakespeare and Joyce, Euro-American politics of terror and Platonic and psychoanalytical interpretations of khora.
Kiej’e, Nikolas. Japanese Grostesqueries. Text by Terence Barrow. Rutland , VT : Charles E. Tuttle, 1973. ISBN: 080480656X. I love this book! Kiej’e has compiled a valuable visual collection of Japanese examples of the grotesque, monstrous figures that range from female ghosts to male ogres. In addition to the stunning woodcuts, prints and other visual media, there is also an informative article by Barrow, “Ghosts, Ghost-Gods, and Demons of Japan” (7-28).
Law, John. A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. New York : Routledge, 1991. ISBN: 0415071399. Law puts forward a Marxist analysis of “monster” as a symbol of social force, demonstrating that the European literary monster archetype symbolizes capitalism. Indeed, in Das Kapital, Marx himself states, “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
Mode, Heinz. Fabulous Beasts and Demons. New York : Phaidon, 1973. ISBN: 0714816426. This work by Mode, a professor of oriental archaeology, is really a modern bestiary. Employing an archaeological and art history approach to the topic of monsters, it includes over four hundred illustrations covering five thousand years of humanity’s fascination with monsters, organized by type. Mode’s interest is definitely ontology as is clear in his definition of “monster”: “a new shape resulting from a combination . . . of characteristic components or properties of different kinds of living things or natural objects . . . it does not occur in nature, but belongs solely to the realm of the human imagination . . . a new type capable of life in art and in the imagination” (7).
Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, Demons & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-691-05719-2. Strickland’s excellent offering is a focused and complete iconographic investigation of medieval bestiaries and other art, which evince a deep and polemical fascination with non-Christian “monsters”: Jews, Muslims, Mongols and imaginary mutants from far-flung regions. The work includes crisp images and color plates of surprising images, as well as a cogent, thorough analysis by Strickland.
Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York : Routledge, 2nd ed. 2001. ISBN: 0415928125. Also: The Plague of Fantasies. London : Verso, 1997. ISBN: 1859841937. Žižek deserves a mention for his varied philosophical and social reflections on the monstrous sublime. In Enjoy Your Symptom! he asserts that the postmodern world is fascinated with “the Thing, with a foreign body in a social texture” (123), which he explores in film and culture. In other words, Žižek postulates that monsters are self-fulfilling prophecies of (post)modernity. In Plague of Fantasies, he comments on everything from national differences in toilet design to Schumann to argue that critical thought should work towards the abstract. Most helpful for our purposes is the way in which Žižek’s philosophy presses to the extreme earlier reflections on the sublime (see Jean-Francois Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, 1994), claiming that that diabolical Evil and Good are the same, given “the monstrosity of a crazy, sadistic God” (229).